Foreign Service officers became central figures in the current presidential impeachment process when they were called to testify before the congressional committee charged with that responsibility. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and her Foreign Service colleagues were caught in the middle of a partisan brouhaha as they told the House Intelligence Committee what they knew of circumstances surrounding charges against President Donald Trump.
As a former Foreign Service officer, I watched the proceedings with a keen interest. Some years ago, I also testified before a congressional committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Unlike what I witnessed on a number of occasions this past week, I was treated respectfully and courteously by every member of the committee, Republicans and Democrats alike.
The public might benefit by knowing more about these people called Foreign Service officers. How are they selected? How are they trained? What is their function? What is the nature of their existence?
Nearly 10,000 applicants took the Foreign Service entrance exam last year. Only 101 eventually received appointments following an oral exam, a security check, and a physical exam. In short, this is an elite group of people chosen from across the nation for their intelligence, knowledge, and poise — exactly what viewers saw from the witness table at last week’s impeachment hearings.
Those applicants selected will undergo several months of training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va. Language training will follow for most, ranging from sixteen weeks to two years, depending on the difficulty of the language. The young officers, 30 is the average entrance age, will then be sent to one of 294 overseas posts.
At embassies, they will work in either the political, economic, consular, or administrative sections. At consulates, they are likely to serve in a multitude of functions, including visas, passports, notarial services, and citizen support. A few will be sent to special missions, like the United Nations European office in Geneva where I served for two years.
Overseas posts range from the more glamorous, like Paris, to the dangerous like Kabul, to the remote, like Fort Lamy, where I was once assigned.
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Because living conditions vary widely, FSOs are rotated every two to five years from one post to another.
I first worked in Geneva at the American Consulate General issuing nonimmigrant visas and serving as the “protection and welfare officer.” As the visa officer I interviewed a variety of applicants seeking permission to enter the United States, including tourists, students, businessmen, and United Nations delegates. The welfare end of my responsibilities ran the gamut from the serious moments of Americans injured, killed, or jailed to a lighter moment when I was asked to accompany an American exotic dancer to an audition at a Geneva cabaret.
When I was transferred to the U.S. Mission to the European Office of the U.N., I worked for a time in the Economic Section taking notes during tariff negotiations. Later I moved to the Administrative Section where I looked after a multitude of visiting members of Congress, managed the commissary, served as the language training officer, and dealt with the many administrative and diplomatic details connected with the assassination of President Kennedy.
Life in Geneva, Switzerland, was not hazardous in those days, but was much more disconnected than now. During the two years spent there, I never visited my parents in Iowa or even called them. Telephone calls were made via the Atlantic Ocean cable and were very expensive, the minimum being three minutes at a cost of $36, or $300 in today’s currency.
What did I enjoy in Geneva? The diplomatic environment was interesting, even exciting at times. Geneva is the headquarters of a number of United Nations agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization. A variety of international meetings were continually underway with high level American officials in attendance, such as cabinet officers and members of Congress. My diplomatic status entitled me to all kinds of welcomed perks, from attendance at almost daily diplomatic receptions to easy entry at customs points to duty-free privileges on foreign purchases.
What did I miss while overseas? Mostly family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I missed most everything American or Iowan, from hot dogs to Hawkeye football games.
Unlike today, American diplomats were seldom in dangerous circumstances. A plaque near the diplomatic entrance to the State Department that commemorates Foreign Service officers killed in the line of duty had a couple of dozen names at that time. Today, 250 names appear on two such plaques commemorating Foreign Service officers who have died at the hands of assassins, bombings, and terrorist attacks.
The ambassador’s residence in Geneva during my time was an 18th century villa in a peaceful setting overlooking Lake Geneva. It is now behind iron gates with 24-hour guards. The Mission headquarters, where I once freely walked in and out, is now fortified by concrete barriers and armed guards.
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Foreign Service officers have played a major role in the formulation of American foreign policy for many years. I was sworn into the Service by Charles Bohlen, President Franklin Roosevelt’s adviser on Soviet affairs during the Second World War and later ambassador to the Soviet Union and France.
George Kennan, a Foreign Service officer stationed in Moscow after World War II developed the “containment policy” that thwarted the aggressive ambitions of the Soviet Union for decades until its eventual collapse in 1991. Llewellyn Thompson, a Foreign Service officer and expert on the Soviet Union, was a key adviser to President Kennedy during the perilous times of the Cuban missile crisis.
These people, our Foreign Service officers, deserve the gratitude of all Americans. We should salute the likes of Marie Yovanovitch and her colleagues.
Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org